Britain's 1981 Urban Riots

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Britain's 1981 Urban Riots

Magazine article

By: Anonymous

Date: September 1981

Source: "Britain's 1981 Urban Riots." Searchlight (September 1981): 16–20.

About the Author: Searchlight magazine is a British publication focusing on the movement against racism and fascism.


In April 1981, riots broke out Brixton, a district in south London whose population is largely black. These riots followed the stabbing death of a black youth and were generalized as a protest against racial discrimination. However, as the year progressed, additional riots erupted in other parts of England and brought attention to the plight of nonwhites, as well as to oppression and institutionalized racism on the part of the police. To better understand the circumstances that fueled the riots, the British government commissioned Lord Scarman to investigate the causes of the riots. The Scarman report cited the racial disadvantage of the Brixton residents as a catalyst for the violence. Following the July riots in Southall, a district in western London, and Liverpool, the scope of Lord Scarman's report was expanded to investigate these riots as well. In these riots, however, whites joined the violent demonstrations along with the non-whites, suggesting that the catalyst was more than racial discrimination.

In 1981, Brixton was almost entirely populated by descendents of black West Indian immigrants. Approximately half of this population was unemployed at the time that the riots broke out. During this period, the police were engaged in "Operation Swamp," which involved stopping and searching youths. Employing the broad "sus" laws that allowed police to stop and search anyone suspected of planning a crime, the police mainly targeted the black youths in Brixton. On April 10, 1981, the crowd that gathered suggested that the officers were antagonizing an injured man. Unemployment, the economic depression of the district, and distrust of the police heightened tensions and set off these first riots. These riots left 300 people injured, eighty-three buildings burned, and twenty-three vehicles damaged.

More riots occurred in other parts of London. In Southall, a predominantly Asian suburb, tensions were ripe for violence following a 1979 confrontation between Asian youths and the police. The confrontation was provoked by the death of Blair Peach, an Asian anti-racism activist, who was allegedly killed by the National Front, a right-wing white supremacy organization. The Asian community harbored resentment toward the police, believing that Peach's death had not been adequately investigated. When a right-wing neo-Nazis planned a concert at the Hambrough Tavern in Southall in July 1981, the scene was set for conflict to occur. The skinheads who converged on the district passed out flyers to the local residents and displayed white supremacy paraphernalia. This provoked the youths in this largely Pakistani population to respond by burning down the tavern. This act touched off several days of confrontations between the Asian youths and police.

In Liverpool, nine days of riots followed the heavy-handed arrest of a black motorcyclist. The motorcyclist escaped arrest when a crowd surrounded the officers. Tensions between residents and the police had been strained by widespread police detention, particularly of black youths. In addition, the police were accused of oppressive tactics such as harassing and planting drugs on youths and beating suspects. As a result, when the motorcyclist was stopped, a crowd gathered and allowed him to escape. During this episode, several police officers were injured. Although this appeared at first to be a racially motivated response by blacks to police oppression, subsequent reports have found that whites and blacks acted together against the police during these nine days. Crowds of black and white men used overturned cars to create barricades, while youths threw rocks and petrol bombs at the police. By the end of these riots, over 500 people had been arrested and seventy buildings had been demolished.


The July 'riots' marked a turning point in British politics. They showed us that the anger of black youth, condemned to permanent unemployment and harassment, knows no bounds. Their actions on the streets destroyed at a stroke the myth that the police are invincible—a lesson not lost on the dispossessed white youth. For if the April 'riot' in Brixton demonstrated the pent-up anger of the black youth, the July 'riots' showed us that the malaise went deeper still. In Merseyside and many other cities it was the youth of the working class—black and white side by side—petrol bombing the police, their vehicles and their police stations.


The 'riots' began over the weekend of July 3–5. As dusk fell on Friday July 3, coachloads of skinheads arrived in Southall for a concert at the notoriously racist Hambrough Tavern in the Broadway.

The "coaches had a National Front banner and they (the youths) were all wearing National Front medallions" (Guardian 4.7.81). Trouble started quickly. A group of skin-heads attacked the wife of the owner of an Asian shop, the Maharajah general stores. Later, her husband, Darshanlal Kalhan said: "Whatever our boys did was purely in self-defence. It was an unprovoked attack. There will be no foolish action from our people, but if anyone comes again and tries the same thing, God help them. We can control our children so far, but no further." (Sunday Times 5.7.81).

Immediately after the attack, hundreds of Asian youth came onto the streets and besieged the pub. Only 30 police were on the spot and by 10pm the pub had been set ablaze with petrol bombs. Police reinforcements, 600 were there by 11pm, fought a pitched battle with the Asian youth. One of the injured Asians, 35 year old Narotam Lal who had been knocked unconscious by police said: "One of the policemen told me: 'You will be another Blair Peach'" (News of the World 5.7.81).

… Even as the television was carrying pictures of the street fighting and fires in Southall, and Eldon Griffiths, Tory MP and adviser to the Police Federation, was calling for the introduction of water cannon on the radio news, no one realized that within hours Toxteth in Liverpool would be in flames.


Over four nights of 'rioting', starting on the Friday, 150 buildings were burnt down, 258 police needed hospital treatment, and 160 people were arrested. In the now familiar pattern a small incident provided the 'spark' for the weekend. At 9pm a black motorcyclist was stopped by the police, a crowd gathered, the motorcyclist was handcuffed, put in a blue transit, and police reinforcements called for. The crowd stoned the police and the motorcyclist jumped from the van and was dragged away by the crowd. Masses of police arrived, with truncheons drawn, a battle ensued. The one person arrested was Leroy Cooper, who happened to be nearest to the police van. He was charged with two counts of GBH to two officers and actual bodily harm to another (Daily Post 6.7.81).

… On the Friday, police vehicles in Toxteth were repeatedly stoned by roaming gangs until 1pm in the morning. On the Saturday, shortly after 10pm, youth stoned police cars and started setting fire to derelict buildings. By 12.30 barricades had been thrown up and police with riot shields were rushed in to be met with petrol bombs, bricks and chunks of concrete. By 5am buildings were still blazing. At 6am 90 reinforcements arrived from Greater Manchester and charged the black and white youth: "They were banging their batons on their riot shields. It was like something from the film Zulu, commented one youth" (Sun 6.7.81).

'Order' was restored by 7.30am on the Sunday morning.…

On the Sunday and through to early Monday morning "all hell" was to break loose in the words of one policeman. The scale of the 'riot' is hard to convey. Building after building was set on fire. A black community worker said: "It was obvious why people went for the police, but there were exact reasons why each of those buildings was hit. The bank for obvious reasons, the Racquets Club because the judges use it, Swainbanks furniture store because people felt he was ripping off the community."…

With 800 police in the area, with reinforcements from Cheshire, Lancashire and Greater Manchester the police totally lost control of Toxteth. The ferocity of the 'rioters' completely smashed the ranks of the police who retreated from the area at 11pm. Unigate milk floats were set on fire and directed at the police lines; scaffolding poles were used to charge the pockets of riot-shielded police and petrol bombs rained down. At 1am the Press Association reported that looting was widespread with not a policeman in sight. In one incident the police brought out an old fire engine and tried to hose down the 'rioters' but it was "seized" and "set alight" (Press Association 1.17am). At 2.15am the police started firing CS gas. It later emerged that several of the gas cartridges were intended for use only in a siege when cars or the walls of buildings had to be penetrated (New Statesman 1.7.81). At least four people were badly injured: one 21 year old black footballer, Phil Robbins, was hit in the chest and back by one of the gas canisters which should not have been used.

Oxford claimed on the Sunday that: 'It is exclusively a crowd of black hooligans intent on making life unbearable and indulging in criminal activities" (Guardian 6.7.81). This matched his remark in 1978 when he described black Liverpudlians as "the product of liaisons between white prostitutes and African sailors" (New Statesman 17.7.81). But it is clear from every report that it was the black and white youth together who fought the police, and more than that, middle-aged white women were reportedly helping to make petrol bombs for the kids to throw.

Pictures in the press also belied this interpretation. There were orderly queues outside shops while people—young, old, and middle-aged—waited their turn to take their pickings from the shops. This is not the first time that this has happened in Liverpool; it occurred in 1911 and again in 1919 during the police strike. What happened in Toxteth was not a 'raceriot', it was the working class of the area rising up against the police and the symbols of a society whose fruits are denied to them.

The Deputy Chief Constable, Peter Wright, could find no comprehension for what happened. "These people are destroying their own neighbourhood" (New Standard 6.7.81). In sharp contrast was the article by a black woman journalist on the Daily Post, June Henfrey: "The people of Toxteth have long been dissatisfied with the type of policing they get. Some months ago a young white woman told me that she thought people in Liverpool 8 should be paid danger money for living there, not because of crime but because of the level of police activity … At least no one so far has suggested that the youngsters of Toxteth should be sent home. They are at home, and bitter though it may be not to find the promised land in a strange country, it is infinitely more so to be dispossessed in one's own." (6.7.81.).


Mrs Thatcher, who appeared on the television news opening the Royal Agricultural Show in Warwickshire, commented: "I am very concerned about what has happened. It is terrible." A debate in the commons on the Monday was described in a Guardian editorial: "As with Northern Ireland, the political mood in the House of Commons yesterday was overwhelmingly one of bafflement.… Suddenly, forces appear to have been unleashed which nobody knows how to control" (Guardian 7.81.) … What was already becoming clear from the government, the state and the media was that the only response was going to be one of greater repression.…


The major 'rioting' of the week occurred in Manchester. 'Rioting' broke out in three separate areas of Moss Side in the early hours of Wednesday morning when 300 black and white youths petrol bombed and stoned police, and set fire to shops.…

On the Thursday night: "24 police wagons each manned by 10 steel-helmeted riot police roared around the shopping and housing area pinning black and white youths to walls and arresting them. Several youths were knocked to the ground by the wagons…The rioters moved on to take up positions in high rise flats and flyovers to hurl down rocks on the wagons. Later snatch squads of police moved into the flats. Youths—black and white—were kicked to the ground before being taken away." (Daily Mirror 10.7.81).

On July 21 a white local GP and deacon of the Moss Side Baptist church, Donald Bodey said that he injuries inflicted on people by the police were "terrifying", and published his case notes (Times 22.7.81).


The 'riots' of the weekend of July 10–12 took place in over 30 towns and cities, and in many cities 'rioting' took place in several different areas. The police national plan for providing mutual aid to neighbouring forces was in tatters. The places affected were: Bradford, Halifax, Blackburn, Preston, Liverpool, Birkenhead, Ellesemere Port, Chester, Stoke Shrewsbury, Wolverhampton, Birmingham, High Wycombe, Southampton, Newcastle, Knaresborough, Leeds, Hull, Huddersfield, Sheffield, Stockport, Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, Luton, London, Maidstone, Aldershot and Portsmouth.

The Sunday papers, unable to keep up with the events of the weekend, contained many diverse comments. Three in particular are worth recording; in the Observer regular columnist Alan Watkins wrote: "For myself, I should support the shooting of petrol bombers on sight" (12.7.81). Over the page author James McClure recorded what happened in Toxteth in the bar of the central Liverpool police station. One of the stories he overheard was: "There was this one young bobby in the line … and he's taking a batterin' for five hours and his bottle goes—he's away, shield, the lot, down a side street, cryin'—gets into a doorway with his shield over him. He's sobbin' away, y'know, and there's this voice behind him: 'Come on lad! On yer feet! Let's see you back up there.' 'I can't sarge', he says. 'I'm not your sergeant', the voice says, 'I'm a superintendent.' The bobby jumps up: 'bloody hell', he says, 'I didn't realise I'd run that far.'"

While in the Sunday Telegraph, a lone voice, John Alderson, the Chief Constable for Devon and Cornwall, said in an interview that the police had already over-reacted. Asked if a hardline police response was now inevitable, he replied: "Emphatically not. There has to be a better way than blind repression." And asked if he would approve of the use of CS gas, water cannon and rubber-bullets … replied: " … and guns, and machine guns, mobs with guns and cells of gunmen and bombs under cars? Where does the escalation stop? We are at a critical watershed" (12.7.81).


Lord Scarman released his report in November 1981 and identified racial discrimination and economic deprivation to be the culprits in creating the fertile ground for the discontent displayed during the riots. The report was the first recognition that police practiced discrimination. The report further encouraged Britons to embrace ethnic diversity and employ policies to end discrimination. As a result, the British government began to recognize its poor treatment of minority groups. The government initiated policies giving support to cultural centers and ethnic festivals. In addition, "sus" laws were amended to require police have reasonable suspicion before they could stop and search individuals. Since the 1981 riots, some progress has been made toward racial diversity as displayed through the presence of nonwhite members of parliament. In addition, the number of nonwhite police in London has risen to seven percent.



Cowell, Alan. "What Britain Can Tell France About Rioters." New York Times (November 11, 2005).

"Learning from Lawrence." Economist (February 27, 1999).

Moody, John. "Europe Street Wars: Youths Vent Their Rage." Time (October 14, 1985).

Web sites

BBC. "Brixton and Toxteth Riots 1981." <> (accessed May 10, 2006).